- - Friday, November 15, 2019

Before he joined the U.S. Supreme Court, Joseph Bradley devised a perpetual calendar that could pinpoint the day of the week for any date in history. Byron White was a professional football player. And William Howard Taft was, after all, president of the United States. But none of them achieved anything like the stature in popular culture that Ruth Bader Ginsburg occupies today.  

There is strong disagreement about her legal positions — New York University law professor Arthur Miller says, ”I don’t think there’s much doubt that she will go down as a great justice” while President Donald Trump calls her “a disgrace to the court” — but there’s no disputing her iconic position in this country as an individual. It is unique in American history. A survey by the public opinion firm YouGov found Americans rated her the 14th most popular American public figure.

You can buy a $70 pair of women’s tights festooned with her images or a $10 key ring with her face as the fob, and just about everything in-between, including coffee mugs, tote bags, a life-size cardboard image of her in full robes, a Halloween costume complete with robes and mask, earrings with a design based on the jabot she wears over her robe in court, Christmas tree ornaments, calendars, socks, sweatshirts, and, in a dizzying variety, T-shirts (some of which she gives out herself as sort of joke presents).

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There are at least a dozen serious books in print telling the story of her life and dissecting her legal views and accomplishments — especially on gender equality. Add in a shelfload of others watered down for teen readers, three books of quotations from her writings (one aimed a pre-schoolers), others focused on her workout routine and even a pattern book for a cross-stitch sampler of her face, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for one more book about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

But journalist Rebecca Gibian and the powers that be at Skyhorse Publishing think they have found a niche. “The RBG Way” aims to take lessons from Justice Ginsburg’s life and turn them into mantras for all of us to improve our chances for success and happiness.

Ms. Gibian conducted 20 interviews for this book, and quotes some of them extensively. But her main source has been those books that have come before her as well as magazine and newspaper articles about the justice. She wields her scissors and gluepot well; in this slim book, she quotes the 2018 biography by Jane Sherron DeHart 57 separate times. But she seems less interested in tapping original sources.

Ms. Gibian includes 497 notes to her text, but only three are to a Supreme Court pronouncement by Justice Ginsburg — all to her dissent in Shelby County v. Holder, the 1965 case ending the need for some Southern states to get an OK from Washington before changing voting rules.

With all the cutting and pasting, she has put together a serviceable rundown of Justice Ginsburg’s life, her judicial philosophy, her working style, and the distinctive amalgam of feistiness and charm that have made her the popular “Notorious RBG.” And she has done a yeoman’s job of her assigned task to extract from that personal story guidelines to a good life.

But there are two core problems: The lessons are pretty much those that could be gleaned from the experiences of any person, famous or obscure, who has led a successful life, and they end up carrying more than a whiff of the pabulum of a high school commencement speech.

For example, she highlights the fact that Justice Ginsburg has always gone out of her way to credit the contributions to women’s rights of those who have come before her and who fought alongside her. Ms. Gibian’s takeaway: “No one does anything alone and we should all acknowledge that, both in the moment and as we move forward.” Other teachings that sound a bit like fortune cookie inserts: “hard work pays off,”  “friendships are important,” “never give up hope.”

The book is at its best in describing Justice Ginsburg as a legal strategist, hitching the fight for ending discrimination against women to examples where gender stereotypes have limited opportunities for men, and cautioning allies not to go too fast and to focus on change that society — and the courts — are prepared to accept. Her lesson, though, is obvious: “focus on what matters by utilizing a plan that takes small, incremental (but instrumental) steps.”

Justice Ginsburg’s achievements and persona have won her a cadre of devoted fans far from the community that usually follows developments in the law. The completists among them will want to add this book to their collection. It’s hard to conjure up any other reader who would find it worth his or her time.

• Daniel B. Moskowitz covered the U.S. Supreme Court for BusinessWeek and other magazines.

• • •


By Rebecca Gibian

Skyhorse Publishing, $19.99, 228 pages

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